Nikolaj Znaider Swaps Bow for Baton in an All-Russian Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Scriabin, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky: Sergej Krylov (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Nikolaj Znaider (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 28.4.2017. (SRT)

Scriabin – Rêverie
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.2 Op.63
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.6 Op.74 (Pathétique)

When most music-lovers think of Nikolaj Znaider, they think of him as a great violinist, and when I saw his name attached to tonight’s programme, I automatically assumed he was playing the Prokofiev concerto. But no. He has been trying to make a name for himself as a conductor recently (since 2010 he has been Principal Guest Conductor of the Mariinsky Orchestra, no less) and he was on stage tonight with a baton, not a bow.

You don’t get to be Principal Guest of the Mariinsky without having a lot of talent, so Znaider’s conducting reputation must already be pretty good among those in the know. His Pathétique, however, mostly made me think about things he still has to learn. It was a lovely-sounding performance, but that was mostly thanks to the musicians of the orchestra (great Tchaikovskians all) rather than any direction Znaider was giving. He could never quite settle on a tempo for the march, for example, and if the gradations in speed were minor then they were still a niggle. Similarly, there were slight but fairly frequent lapses of ensemble, which you might argue are inevitable in live music-making, except that with this orchestra they’re fairly rare. There’s less to go wrong with Scriabin’s first orchestral work Rêverie, however, which is basically one questioning musical phrase by Scriabin doing his best impression of Tchaikovsky.

Maybe it’s because he knows the work from the other end, but I enjoyed Znaider’s Prokofiev much more. He understood the shape of the piece much better, and he was surprisingly good at opening up the orchestral texture, particularly in the slow movement which, in the wrong hands, can sound anodyne. Similarly, his view of the finale felt like mayhem in a controlled environment, with harmonies flying around and doing zany things while the music’s structure kept it in (rather ironic) check. It helped having so assertive and forthright a soloist as Sergej Krylov. He strode forcefully onto the stage at the outset and, before the applause had even fully died away, launched into Prokofiev’s unaccompanied introduction with seriousness and intensity. That set the tone for a performance that seemed to excavate below the surface to expose the work’s depths, with real direction to his communication of the two main themes of the first movement, and rhapsodic, almost comic simplicity at the start of the slow movement, which became more Romantic as the movement progressed. He also took a subtle approach to the chromatic driving that Prokofiev often uses to move his music forward, and even through the chaos of the finale he was business-like and focused, treating this music with the seriousness it deserved. He then astonished us all with a dazzling encore of Paganini’s famous 24th Caprice, showing that he knows when to leave his seriousness at the door.

Simon Thompson

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